Literature, Top Stories

Reading ‘Lolita’ in the West

In 1955, when a flushing toilet was still considered too offensive for the eyes of the movie-going public, it’s no surprise that a blackly comic novel about sex with children would cause a stir. Enter Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the effusively written story of a 37-year-old literature professor who marries a widow in order to gain access to Lolita, her 12-year-old daughter. The star of Lolita is not Lolita herself, but Humbert Humbert, who hides his obsession with adolescent girls under a mask of tweedy old-world erudition. Humbert uses his position as narrator to lecture the reader on the many noble aspects of adult-on-child romance, and to extol his love for his adopted daughter/concubine. To many, Nabokov remains “the guy who wrote that book about pedophilia.”

Following its publication, Lolita was ignored, and then banned. Britain led the way, confiscating all copies of the novel entering the country, and France followed suit. Only months after its release did Lolita receive its first positive review from a respectable paper, the Sunday Times.

Responding to the Sunday Times, John Gordon, editor of the Sunday Express, spoke for Lolita’s moral critics: “Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography… Anyone who published it or sold it here would certainly go to prison. I am sure the Sunday Times would approve, even though it abhors censorship as much as I do.”

The first edition of Lolita was printed by Olympia Press, a publishing house where the pornographic bumped elbows with the merely provocative. Nabokov was not the first serious writer to take refuge with the seedy publisher: William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and Robert Kaufman’s exposé Inside Scientology all had their first editions at Olympia. The Olympia imprint, however, did little to improve Lolita’s credibility.

In the 2010s, as hand-wringing over the moral effects of art has grown fashionable once more, Lolita has been subjected to fresh scrutiny. In Russia, an ascendant religious Right has sought to discredit Nabokov as an un-Russian cosmopolitan and purveyor of deviance. The Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg has suffered particular abuse, ranging from graffiti accusing Nabokov of pedophilia to having vodka bottles containing Bible verses thrown through its windows.

One email received by museum director Tatyana Ponomareva, from a group calling itself the “Orthodox Cossacks,” reads: “We believe that Nabokov’s museum cannot exist in St. Petersburg, and ask you to move it outside city limits…. Our goal is to rid our beloved country from the culture of Satan, depravity, and violence.”

These primitive antics have been reinforced by more sophisticated attempts to erode Nabokov’s reputation among educated Russians. In 2013, around the time of the Orthodox Cossacks’ vandalism of the Nabokov Museum, Literaturnaya Gazeta columnist Valery Rokotov enthusiastically set about dismantling Nabokov’s legacy as an icon of Russian culture:

Today, reading Nabokov, you catch yourself thinking that you are wasting your time. You are quickly lulled by the murmur of his text, flowing in a leisurely stream and completely without meaning. You understand fully what stood behind his coronation. His heights of style and loud disrespect of the classics were not only a tool with which to hammer Soviet chiliasm. They turned out to be an ideal stupefying machine, extremely important to the new, postmodern society. It’s no coincidence that postmodernists look on him as a god.

In the West, puritanical concern with art emerges not as much from the Orthodox Right as from the progressive Left. For readers subscribing to the axiom that all speech is an exercise of power, there is little redeeming in a novel that, however prettily written, remains a comedy about rape authored by a wealthy and powerful man. Many revisionist spin-offs of Lolita, like the novel Lo’s Diary and the stage play Dolores, have mounted explicit attacks on the inferred misogyny of the original. Author Rebecca Solnit, who has carried on a years-long feud with Nabokov’s admirers, writes, in an article titled “Men Explain Lolita to Me”:

The popular argument that novels are good because they inculcate empathy assumes that we identify with characters, and no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett. It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience?

For right-wing critics, Nabokov remains a pervert and an amoral postmodernist; for progressive ones, he’s just another dead white man. The fact that Nabokov snarkily decried anti-war activists and other “class-conscious philistines” has also done little to endear him to social-justice-minded readers. In an article celebrating feminist reappraisals of Nabokov, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam wrote: “I’m a Lolita fan, but let’s face it, Solnit is right: This is a sprightly little tale about the serial rape of an unwilling or indifferent 12-year-old, embraced and promoted by the male literary establishment.”

*     *     *

Did Nabokov share Humbert’s inclination toward pedophilia (or, for the pedants, hebephilia)? The notion is popular among readers, and non-readers, of Lolita, and it’s easy to see why. After all, why would Nabokov craft such a charming and witty character, only to fill his mouth with eloquent defenses of ideas with which Nabokov himself disagreed? Why spend five years writing a manifesto for something you’re against?

Throughout the novel, Humbert paints attraction to children as a kind of refined aesthetic taste, himself as a victim of fate, and his own victim as a kind of provocateur:

A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs — the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate — the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

There are, in fact, many similarities between Nabokov and Humbert, which feed the theory of Humbert as Nabokov’s alter-ego. Both Nabokov and Humbert were European immigrants to the United States, both taught literature and published poems, both were skilled chess players, both disdained Freudianism, and both shared a talent for audacious multilingual wordplay.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977)

A close reader, however, will find numerous cues that Nabokov did not view Humbert as a kindred spirit. While Nabokov was himself an exile from the Soviet Union, Humbert has only disdain for the novel’s handful of Russian émigré characters. Humbert sarcastically refers to a White Russian colonel-turned-cabdriver as “the Tsarist” and “Mr. Taxovich,” and misses no opportunity to draw attention to the colonel’s poor French and corny ancien régime courtesy. That Humbert is a world traveler who, nonetheless, views Nabokov’s own country exclusively through a set of crude clichés, should not be overlooked.

After writing, Nabokov’s chief pleasure was butterfly-hunting. This was no mere hobby — Nabokov spent years working as a lepidopterist at Harvard University and elsewhere, and ornamented gift copies of his books with color sketches of butterflies. On this topic that was so crucial to Nabokov, he and Humbert once more diverge: at one point, Humbert laughably mistakes a cloud of hawk moths for “gray hummingbirds.” It may also be worth noting that Humbert describes himself, twice, as a spider who wishes to catch Lolita in his web — spiders also being natural predators of butterflies. It’s doubtful that Nabokov, for whom butterfly-hunting was a doorway to life’s sublimity, would have written a self-insert as a lepidopterological ignoramus.

Indeed, much of the novel’s dark comedy emanates from Humbert’s absurd use of elevated verbiage to embellish his predatory and self-deceiving actions. In one scene, Lolita develops a fever. Rather than taking her to the doctor, Humbert decides that the time is right for seduction: “I could not resist the exquisite caloricity of unexpected delights — Venus febriculosa — though it was a very languid Lolita that moaned and coughed and shivered in my embrace.” Here, the reader is invited to laugh incredulously at Humbert’s narcissism; to read this passage as a blithe endorsement of raping children while they have the flu is to miss Lolita’s true audacity.

On the other hand, new readers who have been acquainted with Lolita’s hair-raising reputation, but not with the book itself, are often disappointed by how little sex is to be found within its pages. Nabokov’s sex scenes are as allusive, as intricate, and as playful as the rest of his work. In perhaps the novel’s most explicit moment, Humbert dandles Lolita on his lap:

The day before she had collided with the heavy chest in the hall and — “Look, look!” — I gasped — “look at what you’ve done, what you’ve done to yourself, ah, look”; for there was, I swear, a yellowish-violet bruise on her lovely nymphet thigh which my huge hairy hand massaged and slowly enveloped — and because of her very perfunctory underthings, there seemed to be nothing to prevent my muscular thumb from reaching the hot hollow of her groin — just as you might tickle and caress a giggling child — just that — and: “Oh, it’s nothing at all,” she cried with a sudden shrill note in her voice, and she wiggled, and squirmed, and threw her head back, and her teeth rested on her glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.

In short, anyone who buys a copy of Lolita as a companion piece to The 120 Days of Sodom is likely to be let down. (A friend once asked me, in somewhat conspiratorial tones, to lend her my copy of Lolita. She returned it two days later, commenting that it “seemed censored.”)

Alfred Appel, who studied under Nabokov at Cornell and later went on to annotate Lolita for McGraw-Hill, recalls the shock of finding his erudite former professor published by Olympia Press:

I was on the Left Bank and I wandered into a dusty, quaint old bookstore… I did a double-, maybe triple-take because there was a book called Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, my professor. And in the matching green Olympia covers, on the left side was a book called Until She Screams and on the right side of the Lolita was a book called The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe. So I bought the middle book, Lolita, and took it back to the barracks. Someone wanted to read my dirty book, but couldn’t get through the first sentence and threw it down, said it was “goddamn literature.”

For his part, Nabokov seemed to find Lolita’s confusion with pornography rather funny. In one interview, Nabokov is seen leafing through a bookshelf full of Lolitas, taking a moment to chuckle at a Turkish edition with generic Harlequin-style cover art: “Look at the man and the girl. I’m not sure who is older!”

Nabokov seems not to have considered seriously that readers might so strongly identify him with Humbert. “The double rumble [‘Humbert Humbert’] is, I think, very nasty, very suggestive,” Nabokov told Playboy in 1964. “It is a hateful name for a hateful person.” To the Paris Review, he commented, “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching.’ That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl.”

Perhaps we identify Nabokov most readily with the narrator of Lolita simply because Lolita is the only one of his books we know well. The antihero of the lesser-known novel Despair lectures us on the virtues of Marxism — how many readers suspect Nabokov of being a secret Marxist? Pale Fire’s protagonist rhapsodizes on the shapely rumps and thighs of male youths — does this suggest that Nabokov was a closet case? We all know Humbert Humbert, the prototypical pervert, but few of us are acquainted with Hermann Karlovich, Charles Kinbote or, for that matter, Vladimir Nabokov.

As Nabokov remarked, “Lolita is famous, not I.”

 

Zachary Snowdon Smith is a graduate of the Master of Journalism program at the University of Melbourne.  He previously headed Chess For The Gambia, a youth development project.

63 Comments

  1. Barney Doran says

    No doubt Lolita has had a posthumous, honorary induction into #MeToo.

    • Thylacine says

      I’m going to have to wait 6 years before reading it, so I can’t be accused of pedophilia.

  2. I wonder, what in this @meToo era, people would find of Memories of my Melancholy Whores, of nobelprize winner Garcia Marques, that started with:
    -On the day I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adult virgin- (she was 14, though)
    The book was banned in Iran after the 1st print in 2005, but how would it be in the US in 2019?
    And who is here the intersectional oppressor, who the oppressed? And how would be the scandal on twitter and instagram??
    (the emotional and delicate human truth of the story wouldn’t even have made any difference, probably, I fear at least).

  3. Jezza says

    Lolita is a portrait of a sleazy self-deluded scum. It is not funny. The ruthless manner in which HH pursues his prey while making excuses for his behavior is sickening. There are many such people in the world, I’m sorry to say.

      • jakesbrain says

        Indeed. It’s like Dr. Strangelove; you have to laugh at such demented behavior, because if you don’t laugh you’ll start screaming and you may not be able to stop.

      • Tom Udo says

        Yes, that’s the point, but still, it’s funny as hell reading Humbert’s over-the-top rationalizing.

  4. Never heard of Matzneff before, jb, but just read on Wikipedia:- a mes yeux, l’extreme jeunesse forme a soi seule un sexe particulier, unique-
    I,m sure that Gabriel Marquez, Gabriel Matzneff (how on earth this similarity of names??, bien etonnee de se trouver ensemble, bien sure) and Nabokov had something in common (hebephyly?), and much to debate. Funny also, the last 2 are both russian fugitives and famous writers abroad. Food for thought and quarrels of the #meToo community, hahaha!

  5. Northern Onserver says

    What I don’t understand, especially from modern intersectional critics, is how one can be so void of empathy that they miss the universal nature of the story and it’s portability. Does one need to put on a play of Lolita with an African American university professor preying on her girlfriends young daughter to make the scales drop from their eyes?
    But then it can’t be that surprising, their beliefs put classes and categories over any shared humanity. They’ve learned to see a certain way and can’t unsee, lest they lose faith.

  6. BenBen says

    Cambridge released a paper justifying pedophilia as perfectly natural. I must double down on this line of thinking with the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world that the more power you have the more provocative your sexual appetite. The idea of consent is interesting, statutory rape protections for minors do not apply to babies in the womb, particular those in late second and third trimester gestation living in New York via proxy (In the cunt of a cunt).

  7. TheSnark says

    Maybe the moral is that intelligent, educated people are very capable of coming up with erudite, sophisticated justifications for whatever they want to do anyway, no matter how wrong it is. Intelligence and education do not make you right, but are very useful for justifying whatever it is do.

    • @Snark: This is exactly the psychopathy of Raskolnikov, explaining to the readers why it is good to kill somebody (and finally had to kill 2 persons for his mission). He did it for the common good, he thought,national law was something for the ordinary, lower, common people. Nabokov, btw, had not much esteem for Dostoyefski, for his floppy style and lack of humor. Yes, humor is what you need, maybe, in novels on doubtful themes.

      • I think Raskolnikov’s murders were animated more by his belief that certain men do not have to abide by the normal moral code. Dostoevsky’s point is that embracing nihilism causes harm for those who do so. Raskolnikov is not a psychopath, which is why C&P is filled with descriptions of the averse effects the guilt of his murders have on his psyche and how admitting to his crime and receiving the punishment alleviate this toil.

    • Vincent says

      That definitely is a running theme throughout the novel. Even though Humbert often admits to being a monster, he always qualifies the statement with various excuses and justifications.

      Unfortunately, modern literary criticism fully rejects claims that sophisticated justifications can be wrong. The critics will tell you that you cannot truly know what Nabokov’s intent was (and it wouldn’t matter if you did), and that meaning is inherently unstable, and therefore being right or wrong is illusory and only sophisticated justifications matter. It’s particularly important to utilize an inaccessible argot for your sophisticated justifications so that only people who subscribe to your nonsensical philosophy will have any clue what you’re talking about.

      Personally, I find it delightful that the postmodern crowd—former champions of this novel—have turned on it. It only works to further discredit their ideas.

      • peanut gallery says

        Calling himself a monster is a defense as well. “I’m a monster, how can you fight nature? Do you chide a dog for peeing on trees? This is natural.”

  8. Worth reading and contemplating is “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World” by Sarah Weinman.

  9. Nabokov’s Lolita is pre-pubescent and prematurely seductive; the movie Lolitas are post-pubescent. The book and the films tell very different stories. I made it through about one-third of the book and the Kubrick movie and gave up in disgust. I watched all of the second movie: the girl could have been fifteen or twenty depending on how she acted, the setting, etc. Nabokov was uncommunicative about the book, if I remember correctly. He just said her wrote it to relieve himself of it. He was able to write a book that I — and I suppose many others — couldn’t bear to read. Explain that to me.

    • markbul says

      “He was able to write a book that I — and I suppose many others — couldn’t bear to read. Explain that to me.”

      Simple. There’s Nabokov, and then there’s you. Brilliant intellect and master stylist, vs … you.

    • You couldn’t read it. Or watch the movie.
      How old were you? Was there a quickening of the breath? Did your heart start racing? Are you attracted to young women? No?
      And so Nabokov relieved himself of it. Have you yet?.

  10. James says

    About ten years ago I read Lolita as a round-out to some “classics.” Aside from the subject matter, it is in my opinion one of the most poorly-written books I have ever come across. It’s like the original porn movie, “I Am Curious (Yellow)” – famous only for breaking new ground, certainly not for any creative skill.

  11. david of Kirkland says

    Isn’t this just part of the natural human sexuality range? We’ve thought unmarried older women to be bad. Gays to be bad. Many are grossed out by old people having sex. Or masturbation. Or frigidity. Or “cheating” on a spouse. Or plural marriage. Or chastity. Or which holes or whether the mouth is used, etc.
    Clearly, preying on anybody regardless of age to trick/coerce them is not a good thing. But the laws around these items show our general penchant for believing that our current thoughts are correct and others are criminal.

    • David: literature certainly is not about criminality, correctness or ethics. You can read Crime and Punishment as a policeman, a lawyer, a warden, or as a literary reader interested in human phantasy, psychology and emotional flights. It’s up to you, but don’t mix up the two things.

      • Let me put it differently: is it possible to be enchanted by the literary quality (original word choice, style, dialogues, lively scenes) of something heinous, such as torture or other criminal behaviour?? One thing is sure, where your subject is rather positive, such as nationalism, emancipation, or the biography of a saint or hero, this does not mean that the literary quality of such a novel is consequently better.

    • >Isn’t this just part of the natural human sexuality range?

      Of course it is. When a girl gets the boobies it’s only natural for men to be attracted to her, that’s what they’re for. It also makes sense for men to prefer young pubescent girls over adults since they are capable of giving a man more offspring.

      • Phil, are you male or female? I fear male, because cannot imagine any female coming up with, and writing down such biological truths as the one you note down here. Btw, could Lolita have been written by a woman? And, if not so, why not? Lack of phantasy, sexual appropriation? An amateur psychologist could start counting the affirmative and negative comments here, by sex.

        • Phil Adley says

          I’m a man. No, I don’t think Lolita could have been written by a woman. Because women aren’t usually interested in young boys they find it difficult to understand why a man would be interested in young girls.

          • That means, Phil, an absolute hermetic wall between the spiritual worlds of men and women, so far I wouldn,t go. However, this very moment I remember what my late father once told me in my years when starting to read literature. Women generally know rather well to write on what’s going on in the heads of men and write appropriately about it, the reverse is seldom so.

  12. PaulNu says

    I could never read Lolita. I feel kinda gross just having read an article about Lolita. And I honestly don’t intend that as a criticism of the author of this article. My reaction is a feeling, not a judgment.

    • Well Said (I feel the same… wish I did not read this article even)…

  13. I have always felt that the whole point of Lolita was the actual book itself. It was the the idea of making a piece that did something to society that altered literature and challenged the perception of the form. It was NOT about simply telling a story. In Cold Blood and American Psycho are two others that spring to mind. I might be wrong. It has happened before.

  14. So if you write a book from the point of view of someone of a different race or sex or whatever, it’s cultural appropriation; you have no right. And if you write a book from the point of view of a criminal, then you must be a criminal yourself and/or you are promoting criminality. And you have no right.

    Nuts.

    Lolita is an absolute delight. Nabokov uses self-delusion and narcissism in many of his works, probably never better than in Pale Fire.

    • jakesbrain says

      Pale Fire, as a portrait of narcissism preying on undeserving victims, is both a thousandfold better AND more accessible than Lolita — particularly as the first portion of the book allows the victim to speak up for himself and his own life, with his own less florid eloquence, in order to emphasize the monstrosity of what’s been both pre- and posthumously perpetrated upon him.

  15. Vivian Darkbloom says

    The iceberg under this tip of a subject is that Nabokov passionately loathed the whole idea of fiction that dominates these comments … that writers “say something important about the world and society.” That writers have any obligations to social views. Fiction is only valuable as a self-referring aesthetic matrix. This is a take it or go fuck yourself position with Nabokov … you’ll find if you read his opinions on the matter. He chose this taboo subject to draw a line in the sand: as a reader, are you a weak baby who looks for “messages” or are you a true reader who can experience aesthetics bliss without moralizing? Not my argument, but, again, you’ll find this all through his writing. Read like a grown up or go fuck yourself, in so many words.

  16. Onlyslightlybent says

    I find it odd the author refers to Lolita as a comedy. I took it as a tragedy.

    And I am wondering if anyone has read a different novel that prompted me to read Lolita, after many years of indifference. “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf”, by Victor Pelevin. Not only do his characters discuss Lolita, but it explores certain similar themes, namely the dichotomy of love and lust, despair and hope, and how we seem doomed to destroy the things we love.

    • markbul says

      Are you sure tragedy is the word you want? If you’re going to use the word, it should mean more than a bad outcome.

  17. Charles Winterbourne says

    I’m reminded of a talk on “Lolita” given by one of the Amis’s. He pointed out that there is very little, if any, real sex in “Lolita”, but an awful lot of death. The book is Humbertt’s posthumous biography, published after he dies of cancer. The girl Humbert blames for his obsession with “nymphettes” in the opening pages of the novel dies of a horrible childhood disease (Diphtheria maybe) shortly after he meets her. Dolores’s mother is killed by a car while running from Humbert in horror. Quilty is, of course, killed by Humbert. And Dolores/Lolita dies in childbirth.

    It’s also a book about theft. Humbert robs Lolita of her mother, her childhood, and Quilty, the abuser she actually liked. At one point Humbert, observing children at play, briefly admits to himself that his worst crime was robbing Dolores of her childhood.

    The book makes it clear that ultimately Humbert never did rob Dolores of her true innocence/naivete. In that sewnse Dolores/Lolita was incorruptible. The last conversation, between Dolores/Lolita and Humbert Humbert, when she is an adult, and married to a very ordinary sort of man, bears down implicitly on this point.

    The novel is also about deception. Self-deception and deception of others. Humbert Humbert’s absurdly inflated sense of himself is a constant comic leitmotif. He continually deludes himself as to his significance and worth, while he deludes all those around him, all while striving to accomplish his evil ends. He is the ultimate con man, conning even himself.

    Finally, Lolita is full of those evocations of reality that Nabokov regarded as the essence of great literature. I still remember the near synesthetic experience I had when reading a passage describing a late night entry into a motel parking lot, with the car’s headlights bouncing off white-painted rocks delimiting the unlit entrance. Reading this passage evoked an intense memory of a similar experience driving into a rural motel in Vermont during midwinter. it was an uncanny demonstration of Nabokov’s literary powers.
    .

  18. Farris says

    “Lolita” is not something I care to read. That fact does not make me morally superior, more socially conscious, more insightful or compassionate. The fact I do not care to read “Lolita” does not make it worthless or poor literature. It simply means “Lolita” is not my cup of tea. Why does ever thing require a moral or socially conscious stand? There exist a prevailing narcissistic attitude of “if I don’t like something, then it is immoral, useless, without merit and in need of abolition.” If everything offensive is banned the only literature remaining will be Hallmark cards.

    • And a second thing to consider here is: is the novel phantasy/fiction (like it mostly is), or is the author writing about something that really happened, that he committed himself. In that last case, moral judgment is allowed, of course. I remember a novel about some author who described all the details and emotions of how he killed his wife and buried her in his garden. Ten yrs later, it came out , it exactly happened like that, the police found the remains and he was jailed. I can imagine that you read the book then with quite other sentiments. Or even, that the book is banned.

  19. Pierre Pendre says

    What terrified the critics so much – eager readers less so given sales – were the intimations of childhood sexuality and their destruction of our myths of innocence.

    The curvacious and vampish Sue Lyons who played the girl in the film wasn’t Lolita. The book’s Lolita was a child in early pubescence with her scarcely developed breasts and vestigial pubic hair (“down”, I recall, rather than the wire brush real thing). The depiction of such a creature would never have been tolerated by either our moral arbiters or the cinema-going public because it would have told them too much about themselves.

    If I remember rightly, on the morning after Humbert’s failed first seduction attempt and he is lying with her in bed wondering how to renew it, it is Lolita’s hand that reaches for him. Is that really rape? Nabokov posed a complicated question.

    Like many women, Lolita’s interest is sex is transactional whereas Humbert, poor sap, is truly in love. Why anyway would we need laws governing the permissible age for sexual activity if children lacked sexuality and men were not attracted to them.

    If you read the underage sex cases that get to court, you notice that the male offenders mostly are not Humberts but boys and young men close in age to the girls involved. It’s no secret nowadays that 12-year-old girls are sexually active and are openly sexualised without complaint by the fashion industry and its magazines which constantly push the limits of what is permissible.

    Meanwhile, Balthus sails imperturhably on with his canvas equivalents of Lolita and the cognoscenti adore him.

    • Yes, Pierre, the movie should never have been made, but what about actrices of 12 playing sex scenes? Such as in Blue Lagoon? Or just look under Hebe (pictures) on Google? Only ripe and curvy matrones, not one real hebe girl, the ones where the hebephilia is on,I can understand the fascination of Gabriel Matzneff, see above jb’s and my comments on it. Am I still OK? Or is something wrong with me??

    • Vincent says

      @Pierre

      I think you’re overlooking a key fact with your interpretation of the “seduction” scene. Nabokov makes a point of exposing Humbert as an unreliable narrator, especially at times when he needs to justify an atrocity. I don’t think Nabokov is posing the “complicated question” you think he is. Humbert poses it as an attempt to rationalize his horrible behavior, but you, the reader, ought to see through that.

  20. Peter from Oz says

    Socks Zinovieff recently published a very good novel called Putney which deals with some of the themes in Lolita. In Zinovieff’s novel a composer in his early 30s has an affair with the 13 year old daughter of one of his bohemian friends, after grooming her for some years. But this is the 1970s, when sexual permissiveness became de rigeur among the middle class bohemians. In the novel, the girl’s parents are so busy being “cool” and having affairs that they leave their daughter much to her own devices. This attitude makes it easy for the composer and the girl to have their affair.
    Flash forward to 2016 and the one friend of the girls who knew about the affair persuades the heroine that she should charge the composer, nor in his 70s and being treated for cancer, for rape.
    The book is very good at showing the difference between the attitudes to sex and childhood then and the puritanical mores of modern “progressives”.

    • Peter: I fear, many people have forgotten that pedophilia in the 60s, 70s was more or less accepted, whereas homosexuality was not. I wonder how it will be in, let’s say, 20 or 30 years from now. Always something to be surprised about.

  21. Humbert Humbert should be taken as someone to admire/aspire to nearly as much as Ignatius J. Reilly. The delusional and depraved exist in our world; what use is literature if not to be used as a window into realities outside of our personal lived experience?

  22. markbul says

    I read Lolita some time in the 1970s, and I’ve never enjoyed language as much as I did in that effort. Sentences like quicksilver, and observations both keen and surprising. H.H. is one of the great literary characters of the 20th century. Indeed, the book should have been titled Humbert for accuracy.

  23. lolita was always about an outsider european having his values trashed by the valley-girl values of american culture. the sex text is trivial, and the girl ‘lolita’ and ‘doloris’ are commedia dell’arte characters, as are ‘quilty’, and ‘humbert’ himself. it’s a very funny read.

  24. True, fundamental morality is not, never was, and will never be relative (no matter what the fashion of the day is). An adult sexualizing a child is, was, and forever will be wrong no matter how time twists logic and “sophistication” attempts to twist reality for it own needs. In most every human at any age there is a seed or element of future or past sexuality but again (and regardless) the Adult is never to sexualize the child, never, never, never…

  25. Off topic – if you want to see a real victim of a hebephile tell her own story, watch “Abducted in Plain Sight” on Netflix. I’m not saying that it’s a great film. Though I was expecting the queasy topic, my jaw still dropped repeatedly at the brazen behavior of the perp and naiveté of the victim’s family.

  26. Ed Hagen says

    When I read Lolita many years ago, the two major themes that stood out to me were Nabokov’s passionate love for America and his equally passionate contempt for Freud.

  27. I have always been intrigued by “men” (excuse my quotes) who somehow become enraged, and in rare instance apoplectic, by stories of a sweet youn teenage girl being molested (the current description appears to be “RAPED!”) by an older man. The male may be forty, or he may be twenty.
    I cannot comment upon the reaction of women.
    But .. the men! “Disgusting!” He should be hanged!” “He should be CASTRATED!”. So strange that these men get so… um, uptight about this.
    One wonders about their heart rate, heavy breathing as they type those words.
    And, as in the cares of judges pronouncing righteous indignation at these criminals as their faces become increasing flushed, perhaps we should check where their hands are. One hand is on the gavel, as they pronounce a justly harsh sentence of ten to fifty years “And I wish I could sentence you to the LASH, sir, for destroying the life of this sweet young girl!”.
    But where is the other hand? Somewhere below the desk…?
    Except for cases of forced incest, the teenage girls usually come out of such encounters relatively “unscathed”, whether it’s an 18 year old clumsy jerk or a soewhat well-to-do 35 year old Lothario. She has already figured out what men (including judges) want.

  28. Michele Bence says

    There are some truly deluded comments by men here. These men “seem” not to realise that sexual grooming/activities with a child below 18 is a moral crime that usually has negative if not catastrophic effects throughout the victim’s life.
    Have they been sleeping through all the personal and media accounts of the last 15 years ?
    I studied Lolita in 1975 for a university course , then I found it to be amazing literature , tragic, clever and funny. Now and for many years I’ve known it’s protagonists was a typical criminally deluded creep.

  29. Michele Bence says

    Peter from Oz recommends reading “Putney”. I agree , it’s a nuanced depiction of the 70s and some of it’s aftereffects.

  30. Trilby says

    I loved that book, it’s a wonderful book, although I haven’t read it in a long time. But here’s what everyone seems to get wrong: some young girls are sexual beings at 12-13, and curious, and have crushes, and torment the men they crush on with their relentless pursuit. I am speaking from personal experience.

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